International Literacy Day: A Special Day for John Daniel O’Leary

Over a period of 45 years, John Daniel O’Leary has acquired many fond memories from Carleton.

At one end of the spectrum, in the 1970s, he made an interception that led to a touchdown at a Panda Game. At the other, this last June, he was awarded an honorary doctorate for his life-long work to promote literacy in marginalized communities.

Everything that came in between—from his 16 years as President of Frontier College, a nation-wide literacy organization, to his own personal love of reading—stemmed from one particular instant between his first and second year.

“Before I went to Carleton I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” he said. “I was a middle class child, and I’d never been exposed to anything else. I certainly had no idea about life outside my situation.”

In 1971, O’Leary took on a summer English teacher’s job at the Rideau Correctional and Treatment Centre. He instructed a dozen young inmates high school level English. The guards called the 20-year-old O’Leary “the professor.” He was gobsmacked by the rate of illiteracy, which had not been part of his job orientation.

“No one ever says, ‘I’m illiterate and can you please help me become literate?’. “No, they say, ‘help me get better.'”

It was an inmate named Joe and a book published by Alcoholics Anonymous that defined O’Leary’s career to become a champion of empowering the impoverished.

“I need your help with something…” said Joe, out of earshot of guards and other inmates, holding up the Big Book.

“He didn’t want to learn to read or to write for any other purpose than to get sober,” said O’Leary. “He understood that if he could read that book he could survive.

“That really showed me the power of reading.”

Five years earlier, in 1966, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named Sept. 8 International Literacy Day. Meant to
mobilize the world’s teachers into a global force of empowerment through literacy, the UNESCO definition of literacy was clear: “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts….” All this to “…enable an individual to achieve his or her goals…and to participate fully in the wider society.”

Frontier College, which was already 79 years old in 1978 when O’Leary joined as a teacher, has a similar mandate. The literacy advocacy institute challenged teachers, learners and anyone lucky enough to have been raised as a reader to share their skill with those less fortunate. The rates of illiteracy, even in Canada, are still very high among oppressed or disadvantaged people.

According to the Canadian Literacy and Learning Network, a whopping 42 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 16 and 65 had low literacy skills in 2011.
Where you’ll find poverty in your city you’ll find illiteracy, and it’s into lower class neighbourhoods, homeless shelters, and minimum-security prisons that Frontier College would send its literacy volunteers.

“During my time as President we had about 6,000 university student volunteers from across the country, and a very active group were from Carleton.”

This year’s 50th anniversary of International Literacy Day will feature a worldwide celebration and a two-day conference at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. In 1990, the same year O’Leary was appointed president, he wrote a booklet for the UN’s International Literacy Year titled “Creating a Love of Reading”, which is a kind of primer on how to raise a reader.

“When you read aloud to a baby,” reads the booklet, “he or she is growing used to the rhythmic sound of your voice and associating it with a peaceful and secure time. In other words, your baby is learning to associate words, language and reading with pleasure.”

Carleton research has confirmed that a parent’s support is integral to a child’s life-long love of reading. Monique Sénéchal, of the Child Language and Literacy Research lab (CLLR), is most interested in how children naturally learn how to read as part of their upbringing and her grad student, Ashley Bildfell, has studied extensively how a parent’s role in a child’s literacy is tantamount.

The lab’s studies indicate how positive feedback from the mother or father has an impact on the child’s ability to read. It’s something taken for granted in western countries, which UNESCO is striving to remind us every Sept. 8.

“Reading, stories and literacy will not guarantee justice, peace, an end to racism or a specific direction for our country,” wrote O’Leary in his 1990 booklet.
“But they will enhance mutual understanding and bring us together for moments of education and enjoyment.”

This entry was written by Joseph Mathieu and posted in the issue. Bookmark the permalink or share the following short URL for this article via social media:

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